Soft On People, Tough On Ideas

On March 31, 2017, in his New York Times Corner Office column, Adam Bryant published: Jessie Woolley-Wilson on Creating Benevolent Friction at Work, a condensed version of his interview with Jessie Woolley-Wilson, C.E.O. of Dream Box Learning, a provider of math-education software.

Through Bryant’s article, we learn about how language and cultural differences within her diverse family influenced Woolley-Wilson’s leadership style. Speaking about their frequent dinnertime arguments she says: “What I realized was that they were very engaged in discussions about the economy or about what was going on in different countries. I was witnessing the best part of “benevolent friction” — to be hard on ideas but soft on people — because there was a lot of love and hope about the future.”[1]

Woolley-Wilson sees “benevolent friction” as a positive thing within a work community: “if you don’t have pressure on the carbon, you never get to the diamond. You can still be very respectful, and assume everybody has a spark, but we have to subject our ideas to the toughest scrutiny because our work is important.”[2]

In a start-up company, she says: “you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so you have to be constantly learning and be adaptive with your colleagues. You might think you have a role to play, but you have to listen and be responsive to your colleagues for the team to really win.”[3]

Friction is an inevitable part of all family businesses. And here too, it can change its negative aspect to a positive.

Like start-ups, family-businesses traverse uncharted territory. And Woolley-Wilson’s leadership style provides invaluable guidance. Perhaps more challenging to implement given the dynamics inherent in family businesses, embracing the friction between family members— and colleagues—with love and listening allows you to be hard on ideas and soft on people – thereby allowing them to become productive elements in the family enterprise.


[1] Bryant, A. (2017) Jessie Woolley-Wilson on Creating Benevolent Friction at Work. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/business/jessie-woolley-wilson-dreambox-learning.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fcorner-office&action=click&contentCollection=business&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection&_r=0)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.